I don’t like Kuala Lumpur. I hate to say it, but it’s true. I almost always try to focus on the positive side of my travels, but I also have the responsibility of giving an honest report of things, although I do try not to sound too negative; there’s another profession that does that. So while this is a post I didn’t want to write, I feel like I need to give you a heads up of what to expect when you visit Kuala Lumpur and how you can make the most of your time there. I’m not saying you will run into the same problems that I did, and perhaps you will love the city. I can only hope that this post will help you achieve that.
I apologize for advance for the lack of photos in this article. I wasn’t exactly looking for the negative things to take photos of.
My Biggest Beef with Kuala Lumpur
The part I liked least about Kuala Lumpur (or KL for short) wasn’t the dirty streets, how confusing the city layout was, or how hard it was to stick to a budget there. No, my biggest problem was simply the number of rude locals I ran into. It wasn’t an isolated incident, but rather a constant series of circumstances during my week there.
Time after time while walking down the street, I had men repeatedly step into my path. Every time I tried to step around them, they would block my advance. Perhaps it was unintentional, but they would often give a little aggressive chuckle as they did it. When crossing the streets, there were several time times that a car sped up to get close to me.
Many of the restaurants, massage parlors and even electronics shops in the city center have people out front urging you to come in and buy their wares or services. On two occasions when I politely turned them down, and once when I just walked by, I had insults shouted after me. In general, they were overly pushy too. One massage lady grabbed my arm and refused to let me go unless I purchased a massage from her. Talk about a turn-off!
However, the worst was an incident that happened at the Petronas Towers (the world-famous KL Twin Towers). Every night they have several water shows on the big pond behind the towers. Halfway through my stay in Kuala Lumpur, I brought my tripod and camera to the towers, planning to get a good video of the show. After half an hour of searching, I finally found the best vantage point to record the show while still getting the towers in the frame. I got everything set up and started recording just as the music began.
A few minutes later, I could hear whistles throughout the park behind me. The layout of the pool has the buildings on one side and the huge KLCC Park on the other. As it turns out, the park closes at 10 p.m. The water show can be viewed from either side of the pond, but at 10 the police usher everyone out of the park and to the building side of the show. I was only a few feet from the unofficial boundary into the park, but when the security guard finally got to me, he shined his flashlights on the lens of the camera and told me to move a few feet to my right. I asked the man if I could wait a few more seconds until the show ended. He shook his head. I lifted up the camera, ruining the video…and the show ended. I politely mentioned to the guard that he could have let me stay just a couple more seconds to finish the video. He said “Oh well,” indicating that he understood me but just didn’t care.
I soon found out that this wasn’t an isolated incident, and that security guards and police around KL are surprisingly rude to tourists. They also seem to be ineffective, as I’ve had two local friends tell me that they’ve been robbed of their laptop in broad daylight on the streets. Perhaps safety should be another concern about KL, but it’s one thing that I didn’t run afoul of while in the city.
Kuala Lumpur Isn’t Cheap
One of the things I like most about southeast Asia is the low cost of living. There are some exceptions like Hong Kong and Singapore, but generally the countries have cheap accommodations, meals, attractions, etc. While Malaysia is inherently cheap, Kuala Lumpur has capitalized on tourism and often charges exorbitant prices.
I was shocked to find out that KL banned free walking tours in May 2018. There are still a handful of free attractions in Kuala Lumpur, but many others charge ridiculous entry fees, some of which are on par with what you would pay for a similar attraction in London.
One of the most popular tourist attractions is the Petronas Towers. Halfway up the towers is an enclosed bridge connecting the two buildings. You can pay to go up and walk across the bridge. The fee is a staggering $20. I can’t personally tell you if it’s worth it as I won’t fork out that much for something so simple, especially when all of the locals I met said it’s a complete rip-off. Similarly, the nearby KL Tower with better views of the city is $25 to get to the top, or $50 if you want the package deal that includes the Upside Down House and “XD” Theater. Comparatively, you can get a full day with transportation and lunch at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary in Chiang Mai for $50, or a full-day Edinburgh City Pass for $60.
Meals are also generally a lot more expensive for tourists. The average Western meal I saw around town was about $10, which is twice what you would spend on the same meal in any of the neighboring countries (except Singapore from what I’m told). Granted, there are still some gems around town where you can get delicious local meals on a budget, but still for $2-4 at the cheapest places. Comparatively, my favorite street food vendors in Chiang Mai sell meals for $1 or less.
The Streets Are Dirty
Okay, many cities are dirty. Los Angeles, Edinburgh, Bangkok, Berlin…most places have their share of trash in the streets. Yet I can’t think of a place with more trash strewn about than Kuala Lumpur. Hanoi in Vietnam was bad…KL was worse.
I always love the places in my travels where I see a fleet of elderly women in the early hours of the morning sweeping the streets and making the city beautiful. Albania, of all places, was like this. Kuala Lumpur was the opposite. Sure, there was a lack of trash cans on the street, but that’s true for many places. It just seemed like the garbage department was on strike. Things did get a little cleaner further away from the center of town in residential neighborhoods, but not much.
Confusing Bus and Metro Stations
Not that it was a big problem, but I had quite a bit of difficulty sorting out the different bus stops in Kuala Lumpur. When I was at the airport, I bought a bus ticket to the city center. Only, there’s a bus station a few miles away from the center called KL Sentral. From there I needed to take a second bus to my hostel, even though I could have taken a bus from the airport almost directly to the hostel.
I had a couple more errors in my travels around town, but the big one was when I was trying to get back to the airport. My hostel manager sent me to the “Pudu” station. I found it on Google Maps a half-hour walk from the hostel. Except that there was another place called “Pudu Sentral” underneath the “Plaza Rakyat” station. The latter was only 10 minutes from the hostel, but I ended up walking over an hour to get there via the wrong station. Not the manager’s fault at all, but my own confusion with the duplicate names in the city.
Long Lines at the Airport
Finally, I have to mention the insanely long lines at the airport when leaving Kuala Lumpur. It wasn’t the lines for security; those only took me a minute to get through. Instead, it was the immigration line to leave the country that had me standing in line for over an hour! When I mentioned this on my Facebook page, other travelers said it was one of the reasons why KLIA (the Kuala Lumpur International Airport) was one of their least favorite airports in the world.
Looking at the Positive Side
Not all of my week in Kuala Lumpur was horrible. The above points did put a damper on things, but I still had some fun. I made it back out to the Batu Caves to see the rainbow colors they painted the stairs last year. I also got to see the KL Forest Eco Park, and last time I visited the Botanical Gardens. I went specifically for Chinese New Year, but nearly everything was closed, especially in Chinatown, and there weren’t any amazing fireworks (since they’re illegal in Malaysia), so I was also disappointed in that aspect.
Compared to Chiang Mai, there were a couple things that were nice for my mini vacation. For one, the air quality in Kuala Lumpur is better. It’s certainly not great in any sense of the word, but Chiang Mai is full of smoke this time of year and the quality is decidedly unhealthy. I also liked getting some authentic Indian cuisine, which is actually quite hard to find in Thailand.
Getting around KL is a lot easier than Chiang Mai. A few months ago, a new bus system was introduced into Chiang Mai, but there are only three bus routes, and there are still a lot of places in the city that are hard to get to if you don’t speak Thai (since you need to be able to read the signs on the local taxis to understand the route). In Kuala Lumpur, there is a vast network of buses, trams and trains to get you to all parts of the city, and they’re quite cheap. Most trips are under $1, and even the cheapest bus from the airport is only $3, which is an hour trip.
If you visit Kuala Lumpur, there’s no reason you’ll have an experience like mine. Read this great two-day itinerary for Kuala Lumpur to get some other idea of activities in the city. It includes a lot of attractions and food that I missed while I was there. Another post which highlights the positive side of Kuala Lumpur is Lydia’s Epic Weekend there.
A Wonderful Hostel to Stay At
By far the best part of my visit to Kuala Lumpur was the Dorms KL Hostel I stayed at. Two years ago when I visited Georgetown in Malaysia for a visa run from Thailand, I spent a day out at Monkey Beach. There I met Alex, a tattooed traveler camping on the beach. A couple days later, Alex met a beautiful local whom he later married and had a kid with. They are now the co-managers of the Dorms KL Hostel in the center of Kuala Lumpur, and the place simply couldn’t be better.
Located just around the corner from the famous Food Street and Beer Street (but far enough away so that the noise from the bars isn’t annoying), Dorms KL is a 15-minute walk to the Petronas Towers and 20 minutes from Chinatown. Basically, the location is just perfect.
There are nearly 100 beds available, spread out through several small dorms and private rooms. There are also a dozen shower stalls and toilets. Everything is kept very clean, with regular deep cleanings for each of the rooms. On the ground floor is a huge common room where you can escape from the KL heat, and on the second floor (first floor by Malaysian definitions) is an outdoor bar and terrace which gets very lively at night (but closes at midnight to keep things quiet for the guests). There are several hotspots for WiFi throughout the building, but I have to admit the Internet wasn’t always the best. If you’re like me and need a better bandwidth, head to the cafe in the Travelodge behind the hostel.
For food, the hostel is connected to an Indian-Malaysian restaurant. Their food is delicious, their prices are reasonable, and you get a free roti for breakfast if you stay at the hostel. I ended up eating almost every single meal at that cafe while I was in Kuala Lumpur. You just can’t go wrong with butter chicken curry and garlic naan for only $4! And make sure to try their pineapple lassi.
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Planning to visit Kuala Lumpur or other cities in Malaysia? Here are some other articles you might like to help you with your travels.
- Observing Chinese New Year in Kuala Lumpur
- Exploring Kuala Lumpur on a Budget
- The Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur Are Better Than They Look Online
- Thailand Transportation: The Cheapest Way to Get from Bangkok to Penang
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.